A mild case of COVID to many people resembles a cold, a comforting illusion that reinforced President Joe Biden’s recent bout with the virus, even as a new positive test returned him to quarantine. And yet, for all the cheery talk, the virus continues to remind us that it can wreak havoc on relatively young, healthy people.
This is the story of a 49-year-old former Navy SEAL — still on top form — who tested positive for COVID on the second day of a family trip to Alaska. He learned the hard way that his superior physicality was no match for the coronavirus.
We will call him Sam because he doesn’t want his name used to be candid about the brain effects he is still experiencing that could “stay COVID” for a long time, and to protect his health record and that of his family” from a pre-existing medical condition,” as Sam put it to The Daily Beast.
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Sam had accompanied his wife and 12-year-old daughter for a week over the holidays due to work commitments. “As a former Navy SEAL raising a daughter to be tough outdoors,” he planned time north of the Arctic Circle to hike through Katmai and Denali National Parks to see the grizzly bears catching live salmon just upriver the week before. had started running.
They were traveling with his 80-year-old father-in-law and to protect him, the family tested for COVID in the morning and evening. “My daughter went downstairs first,” Sam said. It was the morning of his second day in Alaska, and they were far north of civilization.
“We could see our daughter’s lethargy increase as she slid down,” Sam noted. They chartered a small private plane back to Fairbanks, where they spent six hours in a hospital emergency room rehydrating their daughter with IV fluids. Her throat was so sore she couldn’t eat or drink.
That night, Sam and his wife tested themselves. She was negative, but there was a faint line on his test, worrying enough that they slept with their N95 masks on. By morning there was no doubt. Sam was strongly positive and showed symptoms. Now there were two down. What if his wife got sick too?
They struggled to book enough rooms to quarantine, and instead of jumping between hotels in the crowded tourist town, they decided to drive a seven and a half hour drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage in search of more accessible health care. They rented a car that his wife drove 80mph with the windows and sunroof open, with his daughter slumped against her seat belt in the back seat using a “Type to Speak” app because of her sore throat. They were all masked.
The cost of an already expensive trip had become astronomical. They had already paid for the remote cabin in Denali. In Anchorage, it amounted to nearly a thousand dollars a day to find last-minute hotel rooms to isolate the uninfected (his wife) from those who are in an infection stage for several days in a row, hoping to get their daughter healthy enough to make it to a previously scheduled summer camp.
In Anchorage, Sam searched for monoclonal antibodies over the phone and soon discovered that of the limited supplies Alaska had left, none were tackling Omicron and its variants. Finding a pharmacy that would give him Paxlovid without a prescription seemed futile, so he called the Veterans Administration (VA) and was told he could get health care at Elmendorf Air Force Base, once they enrolled him in the system as a veteran no longer on active duty.
“Kudos to the VA – love the VA,” said Sam. When he arrived at the base hospital, he encountered a sign that read, “Do not enter if you are COVID positive.” It took half an hour to let him in through a back entrance, but once inside it was a while before a doctor saw him. By this time, Sam’s temperature was 102 and his blood oxygen levels were drifting from the low 90s to 88 and 89. He’s normally 98. Below 95 is worrying.
The doctor prescribed Paxlovid, which to be effective must be started within five days of first symptoms. Sam was on day three. The drug is known to leave a metallic aftertaste. “I felt like I was sucking on an aluminum rod,” he says, an acceptable inconvenience given the alternative. “On day eight I definitely felt better, but I still felt tired and severe brain fog.”
The family was quarantined at the hotel in Anchorage, left a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door and only went out when necessary and always masked. They spent the time watching Marvel Universe movies while Sam, a self-proclaimed “prodigious researcher,” read medical journals to educate himself about this virus that he believed was tampering with his brain.
It was how he coped, Sam said, learning all he could about the science of this virus that had turned his life upside down. A few blocks away, former President Donald Trump was holding a “Save America” rally and the hotel was packed with unmasked rally-goers unaware of the active COVID in their midst. “We tried not to give it to them in the elevator when we went to pick up food deliveries, with our N95s on,” Sam added.
He started testing negative on day 10 but did not feel fully recovered. Sam emailed his mom and brother to say, “Take it from me, you can’t rely on our genetics to slide you through COVID.”